Saturn 3


US | 1980 | Directed by Stanley Donen

Logline: Two off-world scientists are terrorised after a jealous imposter arrives at their remote station and assembles a giant robot assistant.

I’m really quite fond of this curious piece of cosmic debris, not just because of the presence of svelte Farrah Fawcett (R.I.P.) and the chutzpah of Harvey Keitel. Saturn 3 is hopelessly derivative, with a clunky narrative, and some dodgy special effects. But it has a fascinating history.


The basic plot has Benson (Harvey Keitel), a psychopath on a mission, killing Captain James (Douglas Lambert) gruesomely (with little regard for plausibility), then impersonating the astronaut. He travels to Saturn 3 (is it an asteroid or is it Titan, it’s never made clear) with his large trusty canister (which, inexplicably, wasn’t sucked out into space in the bizarre locker-room-cum-airlock). Upon arrival he introduces himself to the two neo-hippie scientists, Adam (Kirk Douglas) and his partner Alex (Farrah Fawcett), who are in charge of a large hydroponic research station (Earth is over-populated and food is now being sourced off-world). There’s also Alex’s mutt, Sally, and a couple of service robots in the facility.


While contact with Earth is blocked due to a 22-day eclipse, Benson/James makes immediate lustful eyes for Alex (hey, who wouldn’t?) and repeatedly tries, in the most uncouth and vain manner, to get into Alex’s jumpsuit, much to Adam’s restrained chagrin. While he bides his time Benson assembles and initiates the helper, Hector, the first in the "Demi-God" series of robots. Hector is an eight-foot tall humanoid hulk with red and blue liquid in tubing running from foot to head (well, actually Hector doesn’t have a head, instead a pair of electric eyes on a swivel-stick), and a bulky metal casing protecting the canister Benson brought with him, which is revealed to hold a massive amount of brain tissue taken from fetuses – thus perfect for programming.

Benson, however, prefers to have Hector operate from direct input; a flesh-jack – cortical stack - at the base of Benson’s neck, thus Benson can communicate and instruct Hector, telepathically. Of course this means Hector is infused with Benson’s unhinged, homicidal nature, so it isn’t long before Hector is on the rampage and although Benson is accountable, the huge whirring killer-bot is out of his control.

Saturn 3 was the project of legendary production designer John Barry (Star Wars, Superman), who envisioned a lush and dark precautionary tale of the future. He provided the story and was the movie’s initial director. However the budget was cut back during production because of spiraling costs on Raise the Titantic! from the same film company.


According to Barry was fired after creative disputes with Kirk Douglas, however I’ve also read that it was Barry's untimely death during production that led to legendary director Stanley (Singin' in the Rain) Donen take over. Donen apparently wanted to downplay the exploitation elements of the movie, so unfortunately a couple of intense scenes were cut before release: Adam and Alex killing Benson in a fantasy sequence (possibly after dropping the classic Blue Dreamer pills) and a rather gory sequence where Hector dismantles Benson’s body, which would explain a memorable production still of Hector with Benson’s severed head slotted over his/its own swivel-stick head.

The last quarter of the movie is incredibly clunky and the ending is very abrupt. There’s also a big jump in the narrative time-line that leaves the viewer going “Huh?” With seven assistant directors and six assistant editors I can’t help but wonder what the movie’s original rough-cut was like: no doubt far more interesting, visceral and dramatic. Indeed, renowned British author Martin Amis penned the screenplay, although from the finished movie you certainly wouldn’t be able to pick it.  

However, for all the dodgy parts of the movie there are elements that are intriguing, even cool. While the opening spacecraft sequence is shamelessly lifted wholesale from Star Wars, the font used for the title that precedes it is way funky. Benson’s approach to the asteroid/moon is B-grade indeed, but the decontamination chamber effect is visually striking. Adam and Alex’s outfits - costumes really - are risible (Farrah’s wardrobe and hair design is lifted straight from the pages of Vogue, yet her character is meant to be entirely naïve), yet Benson’s green spacesuit is very cyber-industrial-chic. The design of Hector, apparently inspired by the drawings of Da Vinci, is creepy and menacing, but unfortunately the “metal” is very plastic in appearance.


There are only three main actors (if you don’t count Douglas Lambert’s token appearance), and the performances are uniformly horrible. Not surprisingly the movie was nominated for three Golden Raspberry awards: Worst Actor (Douglas), Worst Actress (Fawcett) and Worst Movie. Kirk Douglas pulls more ridiculous facial expressions than a clown, Farrah spends more time delivering a wimpy “Uh” or “Oh” rather than her soft-spoken drivel, while Harvey Keitel appears to be sleepwalking, and, very oddly, had his voice re-dubbed by British actor Roy Dotrice. Curiously there is not a complete cast list at the end of the movie, so Douglas Lambert is not mentioned, and the poor fool who stumbled around inside the robot suit was never given due credit.

Still, like any deep trash, I pluck what I need; Elmer Bernstein’s score is okay, and hey, you get to see a brief glimpse of Farrah’s lovely naked breast, and then her sumptuous nude body in silhouette, which set my pubescent mind racing when I first saw it back in 1980! Mind you, you’re also subjected to 64-year-old Kirk wrestling Harvey buck-naked.

Yes, Saturn 3 seriously malfunctions, its space junk body dragged around like Achilles did through Troy with the slain body of Hector; Martin Amis throwing a little literary metaphoric weight when he has Adam explain to Alex the connection. The movie was shamelessly trying to capitalise on the horror-sf success of Alien (1979), yet has none of Ridley’s expert command over look, feel, mood, and tone. Some of Hector’s robot moves are impressively executed, and the gore effects, especially the severing of Benson’s hand and Captain James’ demise, are decent, but the rest of the effects are mutton dressed as lamb (and to think the movie was released in a 70mm blow-up!)

I only hope one day a special edition gets released with all the deleted scenes, an in-depth director’s commentary, and Harvey and/or Kirk commentary. It might sound crazy, but the movie deserves better treatment than the full-frame, no-frills DVD release that’s been floating around for many years.

Even better, a remake, or should I say re-envisioning, with a bigger cast, and more adult content! I might even start work on a spec screenplay myself ...